This essay serves as the background for a future article on America’s abysmal coronavirus response, framing this failure with Jacksonian values, which mire American identity. I wrote much of this essay in 2019 while preparing a manuscript that will hopefully become a book on American populism. Please take note that the following article may or may not appear in a different form in some future manuscript. However, for now, take it as I present it—a blog post meant to spark a conversation. Additionally, while I write this in the first person—“I” and “we”—I personally do not share many of these values.
The United States is one of the most remarkable outliers in the World Values Survey (WVS) data. On the one hand, the literature produced by WVS suggests a negative relationship between existential security and traditional values. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart define existential security as “the feeling that survival is secure enough that it can be taken for granted.” Inglehart identifies four fronts on which existential security is sought by insecure societies: political security (strong leaders, order, and xenophobia/fundamentalism), economic security (mercantilist economies, a strong emphasis on individual ownership), sexual/gender norms, and religious tradition (reliance on God, black-and-white absolutism, and the striving towards predictability). Therefore, the negative relationship suggests that, as security increases, we take our political security, our economic security, our sexual and gender norms, and our religious traditions for granted. This frees up societies to tackle social issues—to emancipate neighbors.
Through its analysis, the WVS demonstrates that more secure societies, such as many in Europe, are more likely to have higher levels of existential security and therefore behave differently than many cultures in, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter communities might face yearly threats of starvation if drought conditions occur this year. Death’s danger is a compelling reason to embrace strong politicians, mercantilist economies, traditional sexual and gender values, and high religious faith.
But the US is a noteworthy outlier. The US ranks high in both existential security and traditional values. Especially in the post-Cold War order, few existential threats face the US. How can we make sense of this? What is it about the US that separates it so distinctly from other highly industrialized and secure societies? To belabor Francis Fukuyama’s example in The Origins of Political Order, why is the United States different from Denmark? As Walter Russell Mead identifies in his essay, “The Jacksonian Tradition,” the US isn’t Denmark because the US is wedded to its identity as the individual, the warrior. And no one can stand in the warrior’s way.
Mead’s “The Jacksonian Tradition” explains US foreign policy by framing it in a populist structure. Essentially, the US is a “warrior culture” because the people—not the generals, political scientists, or political elites—know best. We are the warriors, and we demand our warrior culture!
Mead frames the Jacksonian Tradition, so named after the 7th President of the United States, in terms of populism—or the idea that representative democracies only work if the representatives are connected with the people. In other words, the law is helpless against the mob. We own the mobocracy. We disregard expert testimony (especially from scientific, economic, and political elites, of whom we are skeptical). We feel there is something wrong with the country when we are disconnected from our policymakers. We are stubborn against advice and instruction (no senator will tell us what we must do). We value ordinary people, like Joe the plumber. And we believe Washington, DC, is a giant corrupted conspiracy against the American people.
Populism gives Americans a sense of identity and authenticity. Our identity is mired in the traditional and predictable values of John Wayne (the warrior); June, Ward, and Beaver Cleaver (the good, decent, and morally upright); and Andy Griffith (the honorable). These are the real American pioneers. These characters had both feet on the ground, and they had values everyone believes in. And their television shows and movies never necessitated fancy, complicated explanations. They were simple to digest, and they left the viewer feeling fulfilled.
Mead underscores American Jacksonian values of self-reliance, equality (not in the context of political socialism; instead in the context of class), individualism, honor, and courage. Self-reliance is the legacy of the American Frontier—a “you got to take care of yourself” mentality—and the government’s job is the get out of the way. Our ancestors followed Lewis and Clark along the Oregon Trail, facing constant threats from the elements with Congress promising no security. Our Antebellum ancestors faced frigid winters in the Virginia mountains and scorching summers in the Old West, and they survived these deadly seasons because they had the necessary work ethic to get the job done.
Equality means no one can tell us how to live our lives. The congresswoman from California does not know better than the rural farmer from Wisconsin. Elites and the working class are equal. Fukuyama is keenly aware of outward appearances that suggest otherwise. He notes how each winter, potholes in the suburbs of Washington, DC, are quickly filled, yet some rural streets remain pothole pocked year around. The populist would argue the difference is the appearance of disagreement between the Fairfax, Virginian political elite, and the West Virginian coal miner. Populism tells us the difference is not real; instead, it shows how corrupted politics can become when the representatives are disconnected from the people. Populism, therefore, demands a strong leader that understands the working class’ struggles.
Individualism means every American has the right and the duty to seek self-fulfillment. Enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence is the moral responsibility and right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The latter pursuit was initially for “property,” hallowing the ideals of free-market capitalism (for more on capitalism, see the next paragraph). But the pursuit of happiness is a long-held American value. We chase after the “American dream,” despite having little idea what the “American dream” looks like. (Indeed, American novelist Hunter S. Thompson set out on a journey to find the American Dream, but he came back empty-handed.) Nonetheless, our ideal of the “American Dream” is one with designer coffee on every corner, Golden Arches across the way—never more than a five-minute drive—and all caps guarantees of “ALWAYS LOW PRICES. ALWAYS.” Thompson noted in his travels across the nation:
“Because I want you to know that we’re on our way to Las Vegas to find the American Dream.” I smiled. “That’s why we rented this car. It was the only way to do it. Can you grasp that?”
In other words, individualism, or the “pursuit of happiness,” or the “American Dream,” means we often must rent a car and chase our dreams. There is no better way to pursue happiness than in a brand new 1971 Cadillac Eldorado convertible—top down.
Our honor is one of financial esprit, rejection of government help, and personal resistance to social welfare. Honor means being self-reliant, embracing equality among classes, and pursuing happiness. It means doing this without burdening the system, which is there merely to protect us from the encroaching darkness inherent within our enemies. Because we are honorable Americans, we embrace the free market. We recognize that good ideas, such as liberal democracy, have survived at the expense of bad ideas, such as Communism (See Fukuyama’s “End of History”). To the populist, nothing better illustrates financial esprit than Reaganomics—the rejection of collective bargaining, of financial bailouts for the capitalistically weak, and of liberal social welfare, which is a gift to the less fortunate given out of the goodness of our hearts. Accordingly, we condemn anyone that takes advantage of our generous welfare system. These are the lazy, the un-American, the dishonorable, the enemy within. The populist might also see them as the outside enemy—the illegal immigrant come to our country to take our jobs or burden the system.
Finally, courage means we stand up for what we believe, and we are willing to lay down our lives if necessary to protect kinship, neighbors, country, and the prevailing morality. The populist fights for the American ideals against Communism, Sharia, and Feminism, notably if the ideas are outside influenced. This inevitably means we must be ready and willing to go to war. As Mead points out, Americans are quick to settle scores with violence—a la any film featuring Clint Eastwood, the obstinate American hero. Therefore, we award the military’s highest honor to people who dare to fight for our values, despite the incredible senselessness of most Medal of Honor actions. But sense matters little when American greatness is on the line. In fact, we expect our soldiers to self-sacrifice if given the opportunity. If the soldier fails to take a suicidal action when expected, we label him a “yellow bellied coward.” When the Taliban took US soldier Beaudry Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl prisoner, Americans debated considerably as to whether or not the US should negotiate for his release. Because the soldier abandoned his post, he wasn’t immediately worthy of our sympathy and rescue. Indeed, if terrorists had captured Shirley Temple, Americans would have been clamoring for her release, even if it meant negotiating with her abductors.
But outside of self-reliance, equality, individualism, honor, and courage is darkness. War is a necessary evil in a brutal world. And so we go to war regularly—not just war, but total war. The greatest tragedy of the Gulf War, populists would say, is that we turned around at Baghdad, rather than ousting Saddam Hussein. This becomes a focal point of the 1991 and 1993 parody films Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux. In these Rambo-esque films, the good, honorable members of a US special forces team kill Saddam Hussein with comedic prowess, much to the early-1990s populist’s delight.
But because we embrace honor, we also fight clean wars, and we expect the “empires of evil” to fight clean battles as well. Honor means showing the enemy respect. American populists revere WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel because he treated the enemy—particularly American captives—with respect. If you fight a clean war, we will fight a clean war. If you take the gloves off, we feel justified in committing mass-scale civilian slaughter.
The US presently sits at the top of a hierarchy of states in terms of power. As Robert Kagan would say, power compels the US to violence. Keeping this in mind, populists believe we must protect our values, but resorting to violence makes us vulnerable. We wield power in an evil world where our values are overshadowed by the darkness of an anarchical, chaotic jungle. Our values are constantly challenged by the encroachment of Communism during the Cold War; of European pacifism, socialism, and cooperation; of Jihadist terror regimes with no Code of Honor. Being at the top, surrounded by darkness, and facing a barrage of attacks against our values undermines our ontological security primarily but also our existential security. If our values are our identity, and if our identity is all we have, then an attack against our identity is an affront to our very existence.
In America, we have low infant mortality, high life expectancy, fairly decent healthcare (for all its inherent faults), a large GDP, a robust middle class, and enough amenities to make Jay Gatsby blush. We work hard, but we value our downtime. Leisurely entertainment dominates a large chunk of our economy. We hand over significant pieces of our paychecks to Hollywood, the NFL, Miley Cyrus, and Build-A-Bear. With this image of America, one would expect our society to resemble Denmark, Estonia, or Sweden. Instead, WVS data places us, at least in terms of traditional values, closer to South Africa or Palestine.
Our Jacksonian values of populism wed us to our traditions, due in part to our place as a global hegemon that wields considerable raw power. The threat of death is everywhere, not only literally, but also ontologically. We face attacks from terrorists and traditional and cyber threats to our democracy from Vladimir Putin, and we also face a global market of counter-values of socialism, diversity, and feminism that ostentatiously challenge our identity as honorable Americans. How do we protect our physical and spiritual being from such outside influences? We ask for strong leaders to compel order—the Hobbesian solution to our foreign and domestic policies and our social problems.
As societies modernize and liberalize, less secure and more traditional nations will push back against changing cultural norms. These states often stymy or even halt international movements towards more liberal rules. That is, the gap between secure and insecure societies means traditional values will continue to shape international politics in important ways, despite global movements that, at face value, suggest the contrary. For example, despite the liberal West viewing homosexuality as a non-crime, traditional sexual policies and rules within certain UN Member States halt serious debate about criminalizing homosexuality. This gets away from the American example; however, Norris and Inglehart offer some predictability within the American standard.
If shifting values, particularly between wealthy, secure societies and more impoverished, insecure societies, precipitates political backlash and pushback among traditionalist societies at the global level, hindering more progressive social movements, then cannot the same be said about American domestic politics? Despite being popularly accepted, changing norms eschew the lessons taught us by John Wayne, the Cleavers, and Andy Griffith. American change is often blocked by the traditionally-inclined American—the American from the Heartland, the working class, less secure American. For example, when SCOTUS ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), affirming same-sex marriage in the US, popular media naively labeled the Christian Right movement as dead. Understandably, adherents to the Evangelical Movement were distraught by the prospect of being left behind in a rapidly changing society. The SCOTUS case was the proverbial “last nail in the coffin.” 2017 national support for same-sex marriage in the US was at 83% among citizens aged 18-29. The country was rapidly moving away from traditional Christian values in the more secure and affluent states. And although the Christian Right was powerless against SCOTUS (despite efforts by then Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore), the movement was certainly not “dead.”
By time SCOTUS made its fateful decision in Obergefell, a hidden reaction—backlash—was gaining momentum among the populists making up the “dead” Christian Right movement. While on the outside, the GOP resembled more moderate conservatives, such as Jeb Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney (in that they accepted defeat in the culture war over marriage), the religious right in America was beginning to listen to a charismatic political newcomer from Queens, New York. And with the appointment of Mike Pence—an evangelical former governor of Indiana who presided over and signed into law legislation that guaranteed Christian Hoosiers’ rights to discriminate against LGBT Hoosiers’ civil rights—as Donald Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, the stage was set for the battle over America’s literal soul.
Trump’s ascension, first to the GOP primary nomination and then to the White House, signaled to the forgotten evangelical Christian brothers and sisters the urgency of political action—Jacksonian action. Throughout 2018 and 2019 numerous laws were written that explicitly chipped away at women’s freedom to terminate pregnancies. This was not unnoticed in American jurisprudence, even at the highest echelons. Clarence Thomas, a Bush (41) appointee to the Supreme Court, not only agreed that the Christian Right was coming after Roe v. Wade, he explicitly endorsed the movement to overturn Roe. This comes despite almost 60% of Americans supporting abortion for almost any reason. I do not write this to gang up on the Christian Right movement with liberal propaganda about the morality of abortion; rather, this is to exemplify an undeniable reality. That is, the movement of America farther left in sexual and gender terms; the shunning by mainstream America and the mocking of the traditional values held by our parents and grandparents, whose values were reinforced by prime time television; and the media’s quick assertion that the Christian Right was dead all served as a collective impetus to galvanize the Christian Right to rally support for the one person who could protect traditional Jacksonian American values from America itself.
This is not unexpected. But it sets us up for failure.
The legacy of the 1828 election has not waned. Instead, the American—Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s “Party of the past”—has fully embrace Jackson’s ideals. As I will discuss in my upcoming analysis, these values have stunted our recovery from the worst pandemic to breach our shores since Mary Shelley’s futuristic apocalyptic novel. It is not Trump’s fault, as so many talking heads seem to argue. Instead, this abject failure was our destiny. Andrew Jackson lives on in so many of us. Boris Yeltsin once said, “Russia isn’t Haiti… Russia will rise again.” Well, it might also be true that America isn’t Vietnam. America might never rise again. While possibly hyperbolic, the idea of America foundering under the weight of its own populism is too tempting to ignore.